Guatemala: Fighting for their land through the radio

By Andrea García Giribet

Following our course on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, we look into the controversial Marlin mine in Guatemala and the effort AI Canada made to make sure everyone involved knew they weren’t alone.

The Indigenous Peoples of the department of San Marcos, Guatemala, live primarily from their land, their main livelihood being subsistence agriculture. But, as it often happens, their land has been repeatedly threatened by foreign mining companies trying to make profit at Indigenious Peoples’ expense.

In this particular case, the foreign power is Goldcorp (previously Glamis Gold), a Canadian gold production company that has been extending through Central and South America in order to find new land rich in gold where they can mine. The Marlin mine, as reported by Amnesty International in a 2014 report, “has been the subject of community protests since its inception”. The consequences of the clashes between protestors and police have ranged from injuries to threats and, ultimately, the death of some protestors like Raul Castro Bocel, who was fatally shot in 2005.

In order to denounce the violation of human rights and, particularly, of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, Amnesty International published a report in 2014 after years of research called “Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk”. This report uncovered situations like the one in San Marcos, exposing human rights violations and supporting the Indigenous Peoples in their right to consultation before anything happens on the land that is their home and livelihood.

In a quest to reach as many people as possible, Amnesty International Canada decided to create a radio series adapting the report in Spanish, Mam and Sipakapense (both Indigenous languages that aren’t widely written but mostly oral). This was a series created by the protagonists of the story (Indigenous Peoples involved in the case) for the protagonists of the story, a personal tale with which everyone involved would feel identified. It was also an amazing Human Rights Education (HRE) initiative that would open the door to education to many who are usually forgotten.

Tara Scurr, Business and Human Rights Campaigner for AI Canada, says “we knew that written reports in Spanish or English aren’t much use to many of the people – especially the women – we interviewed because of high levels of illiteracy and because Spanish is often a second or third language”. This was something the companies had taken advantage of, getting them to sign papers agreeing to “a number of things” they couldn’t understand. In one instance, for example, a Mam-speaking woman signed papers agreeing to install high-voltage power lines on her property. When she tries to have them removed, Goldcorp laid charges against her. She was acquitted, but the whole ordeal would have never happened if she’d understood what she was signing.

Community radio is widely available and listened to in these communities, which opened a door for AI Canada to help inform everyone about their findings. Their goal was to help understand the legal frameworks around mining and human rights (particularly Indigenous rights), but also preventing the Amnesty report from being misinterpreted while setting the record straight from common misconceptions and rumours. The end goal was to inform communities of strategies they could engage in to protect their human rights.

Tara insists on the importance of involving those who collaborated in the report: “We wanted to give back something to the people who took risks to meet with us” she says, and adds “but we didn’t want to impose a lecture on them from afar through the radio”. The idea let the report be organically integrated with “local people telling their own stories about resistance, human rights, the presence of the mine in their lives, and their hopes for the future”. After all, who is better equipped to talk about this matter than people who have lived through this situation and understand it first-hand?

The report and the radio series were a success, reaching many communities and letting them know they’re not forgotten in their struggle. Most of all, it informed people about the situation and showed them that they weren’t alone in their fight.

For the future, Tara hopes to make it even more accessible to those who didn’t hear it when it aired last year, also “creating a discussion guide and materials so that community educators could use the series for workshops in their communities”. She also wants to make the series available online, and translate it to French and English for a wider audience.

The mine reached the end of its projected life-cycle recently, but the fight continues: “there is a big conflict right now in the community with the company and government around the closure, remediation and post-closure phase of the mine”, says Tara. Issues such as damaged houses, dried up sources of potable water and health issues are only some of the consequences that these communities have to face in the aftermath. And still, many other communities are still actively fighting for their land with other companies trying to take advantage of their homes. But thanks to this radio series and the development of others by the same team, they know they’re not the only ones fighting for justice.